Stain removers rooted in the past may still be good options. Housekeeping experts offer their favorite remedies and tips for ousting stains.

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Back in the dark ages — 1977 — I trooped off to college with a “homemaking” chart from my grandmother offering cheap, quick and easy ways to tackle life’s scum, smears, glop and spills.

Quick and easy, that is, if you happen to know what oxalic acid is or keep Javelle water on hand. Well, turns out oxalic acid is a rust remover and Javelle water is a bleach, both valid remedies for stains today.I still have my grandmother’s now-yellowed tips using everyday fare from the fridge, pantry and medicine chest as the first line of defense against stains. Though carpets, fabrics, countertops and floorings are more sophisticated, home-based stain rescues remain immensely popular.

Versatile, handy remedies

“People would love one magic wand and that obviously doesn’t exist,” said Carolyn Forte, home appliance and cleaning products director for the Good Housekeeping Research Institute. “Know your fabrics, know what kind of stain it is. There’s a little bit of science and a lot of luck behind it.”

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Getting a stain up fast will swing the luck part in your favor. Cornstarch, cornmeal and talcum powder are absorbents and will work on greasy stains, for example. For stains on upholstery and carpets, reach for a bleach-free, lanolin-free liquid hand dishwashing detergent — a surprisingly versatile stain fighter.

“One surprise for me was liquid dish soap,” said Jaimee Zanzinger, editor of Real Simple magazine’s guide, “Real Simple Cleaning” ( Real Simple, $21.95). “Just your basic hand liquid with no coloring agents. Degreasers can be dangerous on certain surfaces, but the plain kind is safe on everything and dirt cheap. You can clean your windows, your marble countertops. Using products that you already have lying around the house to do your dirty work is kind of a no-brainer.”

For some of spring’s toughest challenges, try eradicating grass stains with a solution of water, white vinegar and liquid dish soap, or apply a paste of vinegar and baking soda on ring-around-the-collar before throwing it into the wash. Baking soda also works well to rid washable surfaces of crayon.

While my grandmother likely fell back on home remedies for lack of reliable commercial products, we now have shelves and shelves of choices. Cold water on a fresh blood stain works beautifully, but protein-fighting enzyme pre-washes and detergents work well, too, and may be easier.

Proceed with caution

Forte suggests proceeding “slowly, cautiously and smartly” when it comes to home remedies for stains. Read care and product labels, and always test a remedy on a small spot first. What works on a soft drink stain on a T-shirt may not be the right approach for the same spill on your carpet.

Also keep an open mind. Some people see club soda as a miraculous stain fighter, but Forte said there’s no scientific basis for its popularity other than it’s usually on hand so a stain is treated quickly. Tap water is cheaper and works just as well, she said.

Some of today’s stains may be too tough for home remedies and commercial cleaners alike.

“Long-lasting lipsticks are a nightmare,” Forte said. “They last on your lips and they last on your clothes.”

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